“Yasukuni Shrine should be kept at a great distance from politics and the frenzy of the media,”
–Former Prime Minister Aso, quoted in the Asahi Shinbun
Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo, Japan that memorializes the war dead that have fought for Japan. Every country has its war memorials, but the Shrine is a source of controversy for its veneration of soldiers from the First and Second Sino-Japanese wars and by extension World War II. The latter includes some in the military later classified as Class A war criminals after WWII. Occasionally state officials have made an official visit there to pay respects to the kami or spirits there, which usually draws heavy criticism from places like China and Korea, but to be honest I understood the whole situation very little, and why this one Shrine in particular is such a flash point.
In Tanabe’s book Religions of Japan in Practice, one article by Richard Gardner really clarified all this to me. He writes:
While many younger Japanese rarely if ever think of the shrine, it has remained, nevertheless, a site of contention and dispute. [In Japan] Traditionalists, conservatives, and the Association of Bereaved Families (Izokukai) have, since the mid-1950’s waged a campaign to reestablish the connection between Yasukuni Shrine and the state. Liberals, leftists, Christians, and others have fought to oppose any effort to reforge such a link….For many Asian countries, Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of Japan’s aggression during the war years. (pg. 334)
Gardner then provides a translation of a children’s pamphlet in Japanese about the shrine published in 1992. He uses the term “gods” here to mean “kami”, but I believe this is incorrect, so I have rendered it back to “kami”. Otherwise, this is the pamphlet as he translates it. The first part talks a little bit about history, a welcome message, and so on. Pretty innocuous stuff.
Then it introduces a cute, cartoon character1 named “Poppo” the Pigeon. “Poppo” is also the sound pigeons make in Japanese, so no surprise there. Poppo the Pigeon answers questions like so:
Q: Who built Yasukuni Shrine and when?
A: Yasukuni Shrine is a shrine with a long tradition and was built over 120 years ago in 1869… (and so on)
Q: What does “Yasukuni” mean?
A: The Honorable Shrine Name “Yasukuni Shrine” was bestowed on the shrine by Emperor Meiji. The “Yasukuni” in the name means “Let’s make our country a place of tranquility and gentle peace, an always peaceful country” and reflects the great and noble feelings of Emperor Meiji. All the “kami” who are worshiped at the Yasukuni Shrine gave their noble lives in order to protect Japan while praying for eternal peace, like the Emperor Meiji, from the depths of their heart.
Ok, that last part was maybe a bit of propaganda, but nothing too surprising. However, this next question caught my eye:
Q: What “kami” are worshipped at Yasukuni Shrine?
A: (some early history stuff about the Meiji Restoration)…However, to protect the independence of Japan and the peace of Asia surrounding Japan, there were also — though it is a very sad thing — several wars with foreign countries. In the Meiji period there were the Sino-Japanese War and the Russian-Japanese War; in the Taisho period, the First World War; and in the Shōwa period, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident, and then the Great Pacific War (the Second World war)….War is truly a sorrowful thing. But it was necessary to fight to firmly protect the independence of Japan and to exist as a peaceful nation prospering together with the surrounding countries of Asia. All those who offered up their noble lives in such disturbances and wars are worshiped at Yasukuni Srhine as “kami”.
Here I feel like I am reading some pretty big contradictions here, especially with the invasion of Korea, then Manchuria, China and then the Second World War. Here they mention “peace of Asia surrounding Japan” or “prospering together with the surrounding countries of Asia”, though if I were Korean or Chinese, I probably would not appreciate this idea of enforced peace.
Still, the pamphlet goes on:
Q: Could you please teach us some more about the gods?
A: Do you all know how many “kami” there are at Yasukuni Shrine? There answer is over 2,467,000! There are this many kami in front of all of you who have come to worship here! Let me tell you about the “kami”….(mentions of Tokugawa-era thinkers like Sakamoto Ryoma, etc)….Let me tell you a little about the Great Pacific War, which took place over fifty years ago. When the American Army attacked Okinawa, there were junior high school students who stood up and resisted with the soldiers….Most of those boy and girl students fell in battle. Now they are enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine and are sleeping here peacefully.
Wikipedia seems to offer a different version of this:
Many of the Japanese prisoners were native Okinawans who had been impressed into the Army shortly before the battle and were less imbued with the Japanese Army’s no-surrender doctrine. When the American forces occupied the island, the Japanese took Okinawan clothing to avoid capture and the Okinawans came to the Americans’ aid by offering a simple way to detect Japanese in hiding. The Okinawan language differs greatly from the Japanese language; with Americans at their sides, Okinawans would give directions to people in the local language, and those who did not understand were considered Japanese in hiding who were then captured.
Or another article in the NY Times offers a view from native Okinawans on the subject.
To continue the rest of the question/answer from the pamphlet, the explanation continues:
There are also those here who took the responsibility for the war upon themselves and ended their own lives when the Great Pacific War ended. There are also 1,068 who had their lives cruelly taken after the war when they were falsely and one-sidedly [sic] branded as “war criminals” by the kangaroo court of the Allies who had fought Japan. At Yasukuni Shrine we call these the “Shōwa Martyrs” [including Tōjō Hideki, translator’s addition, not mine], and they are worshiped as “kami”.
Now, I begin to see the issue here: Yasukuni Shrine and those in Japan who actively support it are fostering an unapologetic view of the wars in the 20th century, using terms like “necessity”, “prosperity” and “injustice” at the hands of the Allies.
My view on the subject is that like certain people I knew back in the US,2 there are just some people in Japan and probably every country who believe their particular culture can do no wrong, and any efforts to defend it are justified. All else is secondary. I’ve never liked this “tribal” view of the world myself, but there’s plenty of people who live by this view, and are unapologetic to the end.
It’s a shame as I feel it disregards the Buddhist view that all beings are interdependent, such that their suffering is our suffering too, and so on. The other problem is that, as one professor told us in college one time, that the trouble with Imperialism and Imperialist thinking is that each time you expand, now you have to worry more and more about the larger border you’re protecting, which leads to more expansion and greater worries. It never ends.
But it’s also clear that not every soldier who fought in Japan’s military agrees with Yasukuni Shrine’s view of the world. I found this story from the People’s Daily in China touching, or this one about another soldier. Also, as quoted from another post, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those who fought have been haunted by whatever they did elsewhere in Asia. Such is the glory of war.
I don’t have anything real clever or thought-provoking to end this blog post with, so I’ll just leave it at that. Feel free to post your thoughts, but keep it cool, ok?
P.S. Another backlogged post I wanted to release now.
P.P.S. The official website of Yasukuni Shrine in English. Regardless of my thoughts on the subject, I feel it’s essential to see all sides represented.
P.P.P.S. More on the complexities of politics surrounding the shrine. A nice, balanced article, I thought, and interesting how different politicians react differently. Also, note that some politicians find other ways of respecting the dead without having to pay tribute to the shrine.
1 For some reason, I’ve noticed that Japanese love to put cartoon characters for everything. Even construction signs and such. No joke.
2 I remember hearing about somewhere in Texas where they re-enact the Atomic Bombings every year with an airshow and a fake “drop” using a big bag of flour or something. I wonder how they would feel if they talked with someone like Nagai Takashi who survived the Nagasaki Bombing, but lost his wife and died a few years later from cancer. It seems people on all sides never learn.😦